The Real Breast Cancer Awareness

People have asked me how I found the lump. I hardly ever tell them the truth because I'm afraid they would think I'm crazy. I'll tell you, but not yet.

My debut novel, Bad Girls, has been released and it's way past time for me to start on the next one. By start, I mean actually typing it into the computer, because it really began long ago and has been percolating in my head for just about eight years. Since the day I completed treatment for breast cancer. I've started a few times, my hands hovering over the keyboard -- the left one, on the "affected," side with a slight tremor now -- vibrating with uncertainty, paralyzed by second guessing. Worry censures me. Do no harm, I warn myself. Because I don't have an inspirational word to say about having breast cancer. Not one.

October has just started and so has the "pink washing." They say it "raises awareness," all the pink ribbons attached to everything from candy bars to motor oil (I kid you not, there was a little tent outside a local convenience store/gas station hawking cans of motor oil with a pink ribbon logo on the label). Questions are bubbling up, finally, about how much revenue is actually generated for cancer charities by all this crap slapped with the ubiquitous, now cheesy if you ask me, pink curly-q. Yeah, you guessed it, I'm pissed.

And if I see one more cheerful, rosy cheeked woman sporting a head scarf in a cheering crowd back-dropped with bobbing pink balloons among even more cheerful, positively giddy race participants wearing pink tee shirts, pink sneakers, pink... Oh never mind, I get it, it's marketing. It's how money is raised, I guess. Has breast cancer awareness become a business? It would never do to send up a few photos of women hooked up to chemo IVs -- weary, sick, terrified women with grey faces. Who wants to see that! Who wants to be aware of the reality of breast cancer: the surgery, the scarring -- emotional, mental, physical -- the effects of chemo, of radiation -- short term and long term? And the black cloud that hangs over all our heads, the words, the dreaded words -- I don't even want to type them -- recurrence... metastasize... stage 4. This kind of awareness doesn't make for popular ad campaigns. It's the awareness that we live with, the truth of it.

My next novel is not about breast cancer, it's about reinvention and in the story, enduring cancer happens to be a catalyst for the protagonist's metamorphosis. As in my current novel, the protagonist is a strong but conflicted woman, flawed and complex. She survives the ordeal -- with help -- and comes through, not with flying colors, but with a permanently altered palette. And I guess you could say that it is hopeful in that way; she survives and begins whole new and different chapters in life. It is not a story about cancer I tell myself. Who would want to read that? Not me.

It is also not a memoir. But, like most writers, I draw upon what I know; experiences, sensations, memories, it all comes together like a stew combined with characters that are planned and some that just kind of show up unexpectedly, and places that beckon from the ether to form something entirely new -- no longer an exact replica, but a new truth. In the new truth, some things do remain constant and consistent with what is truly fact, and the fact is that I am angry. I am so, so grateful to be here! But I am still really, really pissed about so many things that happened, that didn't happen, and about how all those years of not smoking and not drinking and being careful and not having any risk factors what so ever, failed me... betrayed me even. I probably shouldn't admit that because my life has been saved so I should just shut up about the rest.

I hope people will say that my next book is beautifully written, a great story, memorable. I think they will also say that the parts about cancer are unflinching, searing, and true. Maybe it will raise awareness in a different way. Maybe it will help after all.

The story will start something like this: It began as a whisper at the back of my mind. I couldn't quite hear it. "What? What did you say," I asked at first, but then there was only silence. Again, weeks later, I could barely make out the words, except they were not exactly words, more like a thought spelled out, tapping on the inside of my skull like Morse Code. A foolish thought, pushed away. Next time more insistent, undeniable words formed, "You know... you don't have much longer to live."

There is much more to it of course, and you will read about it when the book comes out. Here is the truth that hardly anyone knows: there was no lump felt. Just those persistent warnings -- dismissed, ignored, denied -- finally heeded. From where? How? I do not know. I am a survivor, eight years out. I'm aware every day of the beauty around me, of the blessing of family, the joy that my grandchildren bring, that I'm one of the lucky ones. Yes, lucky, blessed, grateful, intensely aware... I'm here, and will remain pissed-off for all the ones that aren't.

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